Wednesday , Jun , 02 , 2004 C.Y. Ellis

NBA Finals Preview – Los Angeles Lakers vs. Detroit

***** NBA Finals Preview – Los Angeles Lakers vs. Detroit *****
From The Sports Network

By Warren Blatt, NBA Editor

LOS ANGELES LAKERS: 2nd Seed, West (56-26)

DETROIT PISTONS: 3rd Seed, East (54-28)

(Sports Network) – The Los Angeles Lakers have a chance to capture
their fourth NBA championship in five years, as they represent the Western
Conference against the Eastern Conference’s Detroit Pistons in the best-of-
seven NBA Finals.

This is the third time that the Lakers and Pistons have met in the NBA Finals.
In 1988, the Lakers defeated the Pistons in seven games to win the title for
the second consecutive season. In 1989, Detroit won the first of its two
championships as it swept the Lakers.

The Lakers, who were the second seed in the West, are appearing in the NBA
Finals for the 22nd time since moving from Minneapolis to Los Angeles in
1961. LA is 9-12 in the championship round and has an overall record of 58-63
in games played in the NBA Finals.

Overall, the Lakers franchise is making their 28th appearance in the NBA
Finals and has won the championship a total of 14 times, as they also won the
title five times in Minneapolis (1949, 1950, 1952, 1953, 1954).

In their last three trip to the finals, the Lakers beat the Indiana Pacers in
six games in 2000, defeated the Philadelphia 76ers in five games in 2001 and
swept the New Jersey Nets in 2002. LA was absent from the championship round
in 2003, as it was defeated by the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs in six
games in the conference semifinals.

LA, which captured the Pacific Division crown during the regular season, comes
into the championship round with a 12-5 record in the postseason. The Lakers,
who are a perfect 9-0 as the host in the playoffs, knocked off the No. 7
Houston Rockets, 4-1, in the opening round, dismissed the defending champion
Spurs, who were the third seed, in six games in the semis and eliminated the
top-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves, 4-2, in the conference finals.

All-Stars Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant have been carrying a big part of
the load for the Lakers. Bryant has led the team in scoring (25.1 ppg) through
the first three rounds, while O’Neal has posted 20 points per game to go along
with a team-high 13.9 rebounds per contest. Bryant has also averaged 5.3
rebounds and a team-best 5.8 assists.

Future Hall-of-Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton are trying to fulfill their
dreams of winning an NBA title. The two players signed with the Lakers as free
agents in the offseason with the hope that they could earn a ring. The 40-
year-old Malone appeared twice in the championship round (1997, 1998) with the
Utah Jazz, while the 35-year-old Payton played in the finals in 1996 as a
member of the Seattle SuperSonics, Both players fell in six games to Michael
Jordan and the Chicago Bulls each time they played for the title.

Malone has averaged 13.1 points and 9.2 boards in almost 40 minutes per game
in the postseason, while Payton has registered 8.8 points and 5.5 helpers in
over 35 minutes of action per contest.

The Lakers have also received timely play from reserves Derek Fisher and
Kareem Rush. Fisher knocked down a game-winning jumper at the buzzer in Game 5
against the Spurs, giving LA a 3-2 lead in the semis. Rush’s shining moment
was in Game 6 against the Timberwolves, as he came off the bench to score a
playoff career-high 18 points on 6-of-7 shooting from three-point range in the
series-clinching win against Minnesota.

Detroit, which was seeded third in the East, is making its fourth trip to the
NBA Finals. The Pistons were defeated in the championship round in 1988 and
won back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990. In 1989, Detroit beat the Lakers and
in 1990 the Pistons defeated the Portland Trail Blazers.

The road to the finals has been a tough one for the Pistons. In the opening
round, Detroit beat the Milwaukee Bucks in five games. The semifinals were
more of a challenge, as the Pistons fought back from a 3-2 deficit to
eliminate the two-time defending Eastern Conference champion New Jersey Nets
in seven contests. In the conference finals, Detroit was able to hold on to
oust the top-seeded Indiana Pacers in six tough games.

Richard Hamilton has shined in the postseason for the Pistons. He has averaged
a team-high 21.5 points per game to go along with 4.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists
per game. The 26-year-old Hamilton has raised his game to level of the elite
shooting guards in the league, as he has knocked down timely shots and has
proven that he can take a team on his back.

Hamilton is not the only reason for Detroit’s success. Defensive standout Ben
Wallace has be dominant on the glass, as the Pistons starting center has
averaged a team-best 14.4 boards to go along with 10.1 points per game in the
playoffs.

Chauncey Billups, Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace have also been prime-
time performers in the playoffs for Detroit. Billups has drained clutch threes
throughout the postseason, while Rasheed and Prince have made great defensive
plays that have turned out to be determining factors in big games.

The Pistons, who are 7-3 as the host and 5-3 on the road in this year’s
playoffs, are 11-5 all-time in games played in the NBA Finals.

During the regular season, the teams split a pair of contests. The Lakers beat
the Pistons, 94-89, at the Staples Center, while Detroit knocked off LA,
106-96, at The Palace of Auburn Hills.

The first two games of the series will be played at the Staples Center, while
Games 3, 4 and 5 (if necessary) will take place at The Palace. If the set goes
to a sixth and seventh game, LA would host those contests.

FRONTCOURT: The Lakers have the force in the middle in Shaq. The one weakness
with the All-Star center is his foul shooting. O’Neal, who made 49 percent of
his free-throw attempts during the regular season, is just 82-of-199 (41.2
percent) from the charity stripe.

The veteran Malone, who has played in 189 playoff games over his 19-year
career, and 26-year-old Devean George team with Shaq to makeup LA’s frontline.
Malone has been solid in the postseason and should be able to continue to find
the fountain of youth for this series, as he tries to win the ring that has
eluded him his entire career.

George has averaged 5.4 points and 2.1 rebounds in the postseason. The
Augsburg product gives the Lakers energy on both ends of the court and
understands his role on the talented LA team.

Detroit will counter with the Wallaces and Prince. All three players have
shown that they have what it takes to perform on the big stage.

The Wallaces will not be intimidated by the awesome and intimidating presence
of Shaq. They will need to bang down low with the Laker’s center and must also
be willing to go right at him on the offensive end of the court. Not only will
Rasheed have to help out the other Wallace against Shaq, but he will also have
to handle Malone, who can still score in bunches.

Prince, who has averaged 9.9 points and 5.7 boards in the postseason, should
be able to hold his own against George and the other defenders that will check
him in this series. The Kentucky product needs to continue to play tough
defense, but he must increase his offensive production to help offset some of
the explosiveness that LA can come at Detroit with.

Ben Wallace is an excellent defensive player, but Shaq is simply too big for
him to handle. Rasheed is going to have to give his teammate a lot of help
down low, which could lead to foul trouble for both players. If the Wallaces
have to continually double O’Neal, Malone will be able to have his pick of any
spot on the floor.

EDGE: LAKERS

BACKCOURT: Bryant and Payton vs. Billups and Hamilton is a very intriguing
matchup and should be a big determining factor as to how this series plays
out.

Bryant and Payton are a lethal combination for LA when both are at the top of
their games. Payton has not been at the top of his game in the postseason and
could be set for a breakout performance in the finals.

Payton, who has played in 117 playoff contests during his 14-year career,
knows what the pressures of the postseason are like. He accepts the fact that
his job is to get the ball to Bryant and O’Neal. The former SuperSonic and
Buck is still tough defensively and is capable of shutting down his opponent
and can still light up the scoreboard.

Bryant is still the key to LA’s backcourt. Like O’Neal, the All-Star guard can
take over a game and can carry the Lakers on his back. When LA needs a clutch
basket, Kobe’s number usually gets the call.

Hamilton is on the cusp of becoming a star. He was dominant in the conference
finals and carried the Pistons offensively against the Pacers. The Connecticut
product made over 47 percent of his attempts from the field and averaged 23.7
points against Indiana in the six-game series. Hamilton needs to carry over
the momentum he had against Indiana into the finals if the Pistons hope to
hang with LA.

Billups will have his hands full with Payton, who stick to Detroit’s starting
point guard like glue. The 27-year-old Billups, who has shot just 35 percent
from the field in the postseason, has averaged 15.2 points and 6.1 assists in
the playoffs.

This is Hamilton’s chance to rise to the occasion once again. Bryant is
arguably the best shooting guard in the game, while Hamilton has just found
his place on the map. Payton’s defense will give Billups problems and could
lead to a frustrating finals for the Detroit guard.

As good as Hamilton has been, he will not be able to match Bryant, who could
be the best clutch performer in the NBA today.

EDGE: LAKERS

BENCH: The bench performance in this series is going to be crucial for the
Pistons, who will have to get a lot of use out of their reserve big men.

When the Wallaces head to the bench, Mehmet Okur and Corliss Williamson give
the Pistons more size and defensive toughness off the bench. Thirty-five-year-
old Elden Campbell, who has played in nine games in the postseason, will also
have to log some important minutes. These three players will be asked to help
out against Shaq. The 7-foot Okur, who can also knock down the short jumper,
is going to have to be ready to play big minutes if the Wallaces find
themselves in foul trouble.

If the Detroit defenders accumulate the fouls, rookie forward Darko Milicic,
who has played a total of nine minutes in the playoffs, could have to give the
Pistons some minutes.

Lindsay Hunter and Mike James are the backups for Hamilton and Billups. Hunter
and James can both hit the long-range jumpers and understand what Detroit
basketball is all about.

Fisher, Rick Fox, Slava Medvedenko and Rush are the key components to
LA’s bench. The Lakers hope that Fisher and Rush can bring their clutch play
up another level, while the veteran Fox and Medvedenko need to be ready in
case one of their Laker teammates gets into foul trouble. If the Lakers need
to go deeper on their bench, than rookies Brian Cook and Luke Walton are
capable of filling in.

Rush and Fisher will be LA’s first two players to come off the bench. The
Lakers need steady production from their bench, but the fact is that the
majority of the minutes are eaten up by Shaq, Malone, Bryant and Payton.

EDGE: EVEN

COACH: Phil Jackson is in search of his 10th championship ring as a coach. He
led the Lakers to three titles in his first four years in LA, and guided the
Chicago Bulls to six championships. Jackson, who obviously knows what it takes
to win the postseason, is 44-0 all-time in postseason series when his
team has a lead in any point of the series. If LA hits a tough spot, Jackson
knows how to calm the storm.

Detroit’s Larry Brown is one of the best coaches in the history of the NBA.
Brown, who left the Philadelphia 76ers after they fell to the Pistons in six
games in the 2003 conference semis, was hired by Detroit’s president of
basketball operations Joe Dumars last offseason to get the Pistons, who were
swept in last year’s conference finals by the Nets, over the hump and into
the finals. Mission accomplished.

Now that the Pistons have reached the finals, can Brown lead them to the
Promised Land. Brown has coached in the NBA Finals once in his career, as he
did guide Allen Iverson and the 76ers to championship round in 2001.
Philadelphia would fall in five games to Jackson and the Lakers.

Brown is probably better with the Xs and Os, while Jackson knows how to handle
the complex personalities that play for him and sit on LA’s bench. Both
coaches do a great job for their respective clubs.

EDGE: EVEN

PREDICTION: Can the Pistons defense shut down the Lakers four times? Detroit
will not be able to match LA’s offensive power and will need to win with its
trademark. Shutting down Bryant, Shaq and the rest of the Lakers is going to
be too much for the Wallaces and their teammates. This Eastern Conference
squad will not go down without a fight.

LAKERS IN SIX

DET LAL